What’s that in your hands?

A sermon I’ll be sharing at Pepperell United Methodist Church in Opelika, AL tomorrow morning (8.10.2014).

Exodus 4:1-20

I’m not sure how much y’all keep up with current events, but if you’re like me and you like to stay informed about what’s happening across the globe then you know that the news this week has been grim. There’s violence, injustice, degradation, and just plain brutality nearly everywhere you look. Some of these problems have just recently begun but others have been with us for years, decades in some cases. One website I found listed 11 active “wars” in the world today along with 8 “serious armed conflicts”. Untold thousands – millions even – have lost their lives in this violence. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the massive scale of human suffering occurring every single day; children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, neighbors – their lives filled with pain and sorrow. Along with all this violence, we hear about our brothers and sisters in West Africa facing a public health nightmare – the Ebola virus. I don’t mean to be all negative this morning – there’s a lot of good happening in the world that we don’t hear about. But goodness gracious, the news this week has just been heartbreaking.

These are big problems. But, for the most part, they’re all in distant places – or at least they seem distant. But we’ve got our own big problems closer to home too. In Tuskegee where ARM [Alabama Rural Ministry] is currently expanding its work, the community is struggling. The poverty rate has been over 35% and the unemployment rate over 16% for the past 30 years.

I’m not sure about you but when I hear about these kinds of big problems I tend to feel powerless, overwhelmed, paralyzed. Do you feel that way too? What causes our feelings of powerlessness, our inaction, in the face of big problems near and far? Why don’t we, followers of the risen Lord, do something? Why don’t we become people who make a difference? These are the questions I want us to consider briefly this morning in light of all the bad news in our world this week.

 Thankfully, we know and worship a God who is no stranger to suffering, who doesn’t ignore the big problems. As we turn to the story of Exodus, we find another big problem: God’s people, the Hebrews – millions of them – are brutally oppressed as slaves in Egypt. As you heard in last week’s sermon, when God’s people cried out God heard their groaning, God remembered His covenant, God saw what was happening to them, and God understood their pain (The Message, Exo 2:24-25). But God doesn’t stop there. We know what happens next: God calls out to Moses from the burning bush. God has chosen Moses to be the leader of God’s mission for the redemption and restoration of the Hebrew slave. But right away Moses is not interested: first he doubts himself and then he questions God’s own identity. God is open to Moses’ questions and patient with his doubts. God promises to be with Moses and then reveals His true name, I AM – Yahweh – the one who will redeem God’s people from their suffering and restore them in a good land “flowing with milk and honey.” In the face of massive suffering, God is present and acts to redeem and restore because Yahweh is a saving God who doesn’t ignore the cries of those who suffer. Our text this morning picks up the ongoing dialogue between God and Moses at the burning bush. So, Moses has just received God’s invitation to join God’s work of redemption and restoration for the Hebrew people. How does he respond?

It sounds something like this: but… but… but… (I can hear my mom saying, “No buts about it!”). As we heard in our text from Exodus 4:1-20, Moses is not on board with God’s plans. Three separate times, he tries to avoid God’s invitation. Moses is well-aware of Israel’s suffering; he saw it happening as a young man. He may be aware, but, much like us, he feels powerless to do anything. So let’s look at Moses’ three “buts” and see if they don’t offer us some insight into our own feelings of powerlessness:

  1. In v. 1, we find out that Moses lacks credibility and trustworthiness among his people. He fears they won’t listen to After all, he’s a runaway murderer turned shepherd. Why would they believe him? Don’t we feel the same way sometimes? I think we tend to feel like we need more before folks will listen to us – more money, skill, knowledge, training, degrees, expertise, experience, awards, more prestige, more authority? If only we had more we could make a difference because then people would listen. Like us, Moses is looking for that something more that will guarantee he won’t be ignored.
  2. In v. 10, we discover that Moses can only see his weakness. He’s afraid he’s just not cut out for this kind of work. Moses can’t be a spokesperson – he can barely speak! It’s just not his gift, his talent, his personality; God created him to be a shepherd, not a politician. Do we not make the same excuses? Are we not also blinded by our own weaknesses? We all have our lists of things we’d like to improve, right? Maybe someone who doesn’t have any weaknesses to worry about can solve the world’s problems but that’s not us. We’ve got our own issues. We’re not cut out for this kind of work. Like Moses, we struggle to see beyond our own weaknesses.
  3. Finally, in v. 13 we find Moses trying desperately to convince God that this plan is all wrong: “Please, my Lord, just send someone else!” Wow – at least he’s being honest. Moses is convinced he’s not the person for the job. But there’s a major flaw in his thinking: for some reason he thinks that he alone (or hopefully someone else) has to accomplish God’s work. Aren’t we sometimes paralyzed by this same kind of narrow, individualistic thinking? We think we have to solve the world’s problems alone, that we have to be the heroes and heroines, that the solution depends entirely on us. But no one person can handle that kind of pressure – not Moses, not us. It just leaves us powerless and stuck.

I think we’re a lot like Moses: we know about the pain and suffering, we’ve heard the invitation to join in God’s mission of redemption and restoration, and we just don’t think we’re up to it – we don’t have what it takes, we’re not the right people.

But God disagrees… and ain’t that some good news! Every time Moses says “But… but… but…” God asks him a question. God’s not backing down; He pursues Moses patiently and passionately, wanting Moses to trust Him and His power working in and through Moses’ life. God wants Moses to see that what he already has and who he is are more than enough for God. How does God do it? Let’s look at those 3 questions:

  1. After Moses doubts his own credibility, God asks in v. 2, “What’s that in your hand?” Odd question. Surely God can see for Himself, right? God knows that Moses is a shepherd and every shepherd carries around a shepherd’s rod; a wooden staff for herding sheep and fending off predators. Of course Moses is holding a shepherd’s rod – that’s his job, his vocation, he’s a shepherd. For Moses, this rod is just an everyday tool, a piece of wood that represents his lowly profession. But when it’s used in God’s mission, this piece of wood is transformed into a sign of God’s awesome power to redeem and restore. God will take this marker of Moses’ low social status, his lack of credibility, and transform it into a marker of God’s calling and anointing. All Moses saw was his little ole staff; he had no idea what it would become and how God would use it once he joined God’s mission of redemption and restoration.
  2. After Moses doubts his ability to communicate, God asks a series of questions in v. 11: “Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I, the Lord?” Yahweh, God the Redeemer, is also God the Creator. The Creator God who fashioned Moses already knows Moses’ weaknesses even more than Moses does! And this Redeemer God is committed to seeing Moses overcome these weaknesses. God promises to help Moses, to be his Teacher and Guide. It turns out that God’s big plan for the restoration and redemption of Israel also includes Moses’ own personal healing. All Moses can see is who he is, but God sees who he will become when he trusts in God’s help and joins God’s work.
  3. Finally, after Moses tells God how he really feels, we see that God gets angry with Moses, but not in the way we might expect. God’s anger doesn’t lead to punishment or abandonment. God’s anger – God’s passion for seeing Moses take up his place in God’s mission – ultimately leads to a relationship of teamwork and shared responsibility between Moses and his brother, Aaron. As Moses pleads with God to just send someone else, I think God detects the overwhelming sense of pressure that Moses is putting on himself. What does God ask? “Moses, have you forgotten who you are? You’re not just a lone shepherd! You’re a brother! And your brother, Aaron, happens to be an excellent speaker! I never meant for you to do this alone, Moses. I’m not looking for a hero.” Moses refuses to look beyond himself, but God asks him a question that reminds Moses of the relationships he has that can help him accomplish God’s work. Moses doesn’t have to take this risk alone. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for Israel will not be accomplished by heroic feats of individual power. God wants a team, a new kind of family.

It seems that all Moses can do in this story is think of excuses. Benjamin Franklin once said that “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” Good thing Ben Franklin isn’t God! God doesn’t give up on Moses; God doesn’t give up on us. Maybe this morning you think you don’t have anything to offer God, nothing that can be of any use in God’s mission of redemption and restoration in Opelika, Lee County, Alabama, and the world. I think God may be asking us today, “What’s that in your hand?” All Moses had was a shepherd’s staff and that was enough for God – it wasn’t a sword or ruler’s scepter – just a simple staff. What do you have? A skill? A story? An experience? Maybe just free time and a listening ear? Each one of us here is a unique person that means we ALL have a unique role to play in God’s unfolding drama of redemption and restoration. Will you offer what you have to God?

Maybe all you can see this morning is your weaknesses, your shortcomings, your failures. God knows you – inside and out, backwards and forwards, past, present, and future. And guess what? God still wants you! God will be with you, your Teacher, your Guide. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for all people includes you and your personal healing. Will you trust God to be with you? To help you overcome your fears, your weaknesses, your doubts and to make you whole? Will you join God’s work knowing that you can’t accomplish it with your own strength?

Finally, maybe you’ve forgotten who you are this morning; thinking that you have to solve all of life’s problems on your own. Take a second to think about all the different roles you occupy. For me, I’m a son with a mom and dad, a brother to two other brothers, a husband to my wife, a father to my daughter, a co-worker with other co-workers, a friend among other friends, etc… We all live as members of a larger network of relationships that sustain us and make us who we are. And remember that God is Trinity, a community of three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. When we join in this Trinitarian God’s mission of redemption and restoration, we’re invited into a deeper fellowship with God, each other and our neighbors. We’re in this together. Are we willing to join hands and be the people whose life together shows the world a different, more loving way?

I love how this text ends. In verse 18, Moses tells his father-in-law Jethro that he needs to return to Egypt to see if his family is still alive. Now, either Moses is too scared to tell Jethro the real reason he’s returning to Egypt or maybe he still just doesn’t believe it. Whatever the case, the important part is that he goes. He may not understand how God is going to use him or how he’ll be changed in the process, but he packs up his things, trusts God, and hits the road for Egypt to face his people’s suffering head on. We don’t have to all be Moses, but I think we can learn something from his faith.

God has called us into His mission of redemption and restoration for all creation – beginning right here in Opelika, in Pepperell village. The kingdom of God is at hand. In the face of all the suffering we see in the world today, God is asking us, “What’s in your hand? Don’t you know that I created you? Do you know who you are?” We may not be able to see the end result, but let’s say yes to God, pack our bags and head towards Egypt anyway. Amen.

[See also, Dr. Al Tizon’s related post of Walter Brueggemann’s prayer “Deliver Us from Amnesia”]

Church Renewal & Evangelism: On the Way of the Poor

What is poverty? What does concern for the poor have to do with church renewal and the church’s practice of evangelism?

Poverty is sin because poverty is death. It is the multifaceted evidence of idolatry run rampant in the world through the denial of God’s image, the ignorance of God’s revelation, the rejection of God’s mission, and the antithesis of God’s vision. Describing poverty as sin does not mean that poor people are somehow inherently sinful or idolatrous; this is not about placing blame or ascribing value. Describing poverty as sin is the only way to truthfully name the wounds we inflict on the bodies of others and ourselves when some of us live as if we are gods at the expense of others.

Because poverty is a systemic degradation of God’s wonderfully diverse creation in part and in whole, it manifests in many forms. First, poverty is experienced as a lack of material goods sufficient for sustaining a decent quality of life. Second, poverty occurs as physical weakness caused by poor health and harmful lifestyles. Third, poverty comes as an experience of isolation from the relationships, knowledge, goods, and services which could lead to a better life. Poverty can also be an experience of vulnerability in which the poor suffer from a lack of margin so that they have very few or no options to respond to life’s difficulties. The poor are those who are marginalized and ignored by others; people to whom no one cares to listen. Finally, poverty is an experience of alienation from the very sources of human identity in one’s life: family, friends, the community, and God.1

While it is possible to make some generalizations concerning these six forms of poverty, one should never assume to understand the depth of pain and suffering being experienced by those in poverty. The only way to really understand poverty is to be poor – this is the way of Christ. When God came into the world as Jesus Christ, God did not merely identify with the poor or stand on their side; in Christ, God was poor – is poor. Jesus was not the son of a ruler, a wealthy merchant, or even a priest. Rather, he was the son of a poor, simple carpenter married to a poor teenage girl. Jesus’ experience of poverty and powerlessness was deepened by his Jewish identity in a society ruled by the Roman Empire. As God, Jesus did not seek power but instead became a servant who gave his life for the sake of others. As a poor man, he was the one anointed by the Spirit to preach good news to the poor and enact holistic salvation for all who are wounded, alienated, and in need of restoration with God, themselves, and others.

If the church is to be the body whose head is Christ, it must learn to walk in the way of the poor. A majority of the church in the U.S. is akin to the rich young ruler who asked Jesus how he could secure eternal life. Jesus’ response is one we need to hear if we want to follow Jesus into the reign of God: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”2 Following the way of the poor means, on the one hand, rejecting the dominant, sinful narratives shaping our society which value money, pleasure, and power for the individual above all else. On the other hand, it means affirming God’s vision of peaceful, just, and loving community in which all are set free by the Spirit of Christ to recognize, honor, and celebrate the goodness of their relationships with God, one another, and creation. The church is alive and renewed to the extent that it experiences the resurrection life of the Spirit who accompanies, guides, and empowers those who seek the self-emptying way of the poor Christ for the sake of the world in all its poverty.

A church on the way of the poor will be freed to rediscover its true purpose in the proclamation and embodiment of the good news of God’s reign for all people. Evangelism is then directed towards the establishment of peace, restoration, and well-being for entire communities and their environments because God desires more than poverty alleviation – God desires shalom for all creation. This kind of evangelism also recognizes the systemic nature of poverty and the interconnectedness of creation which means that poverty degrades all people. Because all are called to the abundant life of God in community, the church should be a place where all people – no matter how rich or poor they are – have a place to know and be known as they participate in God’s mission for the world.

1 Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 67.

2 Mk. 10:21.

Church in the Image of the Cross

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Because Jesus is fully human, the church is called to affirm humanity, reaching out in attentive, vulnerable love to the whole human family, but especially to those who are poor and hurting. In Christ’s identification with suffering humanity – with a humanity ground under the wheels of the powers and principalities – the church receives its own orientation as those who are called to be with and for the victims of this present age. Bonhoeffer writes, “Christians can and ought to act like Christ: they ought to bear the burdens and sufferings of the neighbor… It must come to the point that the weaknesses, needs, and sins of my neighbor afflict me as if they were my own, in the same way as Christ was afflicted by our sin.” That this bearing of burdens is not simply “religious talk” but refers to concrete action is made clear when Bonhoeffer notes: “The hungry person needs bread, the homeless person needs shelter, the one deprived of rights needs justice, the lonely person needs community, the undisciplined one needs order, and the slave needs freedom. It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need.” The bearing of the sins and burdens of others to which Jesus calls the church is nothing less than a concrete imitation of Jesus’s own life, a cruciform life, one that was fundamentally disruptive and that cannot be contained in the categories of religion.

…The church’s identification with those who suffer unveils the fact that the current age, in which the few are on top while the many suffer below, has met its end in Jesus Christ… Christians solidarity with the suffering is a search for Jesus who is hidden in their midst.

…Bonhoeffer is not merely interested in the church being in solidarity with the suffering, but calls the church to actively seek to eliminate the suffering of the poor through an ethics of responsibility with two practices of prophetic ministry: unceasing prayer and action for justice.

…The practices of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution are constitutive of [John] Perkins’s vision of the church. The church is that community marked by witness to the gospel, the whole gospel. The church’s most appropriate social location then is among the poor in the abandoned places of empire, a location that places the body of Christ in the ideal situation to witness to the whole gospel, which meets the whole needs of the whole person. The prophetic church, as Perkins’s envisions it, is a space in which all people, black and white, poor and rich, can gather and grow from an economy of grace.

Peter Goodwin Heltzel and Christian T. Collins Winn, “Religionless Ecclesiology and the Missional Church,” in Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins, 108-122.

Does God Slay Us? A Call for Lament

A brief devotion I shared for my class on the prophets based on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s chapter on 2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) in The Prophets.

 
 
I want to begin by reading a portion of the lyrics to a worship song that the worship band at my church played a few weeks back that got me thinking about suffering and God’s relation to suffering. It’s called “Though You Slay Me” and its by Shane and Shane.

I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You struck down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering
 
Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship

Sing a song to the one who’s all I need 

This song is based on Job 13:15 where Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.” It was written after one of the artists lost his dad to a sudden heart attack. He talks about the way God brought joy and praise in a time of great suffering for him and his family. But Is this song a cry of faith and trust in God’s sovereign will or is it harmful theology that makes God into an arbitrary tyrant who kills our parents to teach us a lesson?

Throughout Heschel’s work, the reality of suffering and God’s relation to suffering has come up often. As I’ve shared in our class discussions, this has created a struggle for me. In the chapter we read this week on 2nd Isaiah, we find that Israel is called to suffer as God’s servant on behalf of the nations, for the salvation of the nations. Think Isaiah 53. However, Heschel also makes what I think is a crucial distinction between different kinds of suffering. He says, “Not all the evils that befell Israel go back to the will of God” (p192). Yes, Israel was God’s chosen “Suffering Servant” but some of the suffering Israel experienced was pure evil at the hands of a wicked Babylonian empire. There’s a difference here: one kind of suffering comes from God; another kind comes from evil.

When I think about my life and future in ministry, I fully expect to face suffering as I try to be a faithful follower of Jesus. I’m learning to take Jesus seriously when he asks me to come and die. However, I’m also learning to recognize the powers and principalities, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms, that are wholly aligned against the redemptive, healing, restoring reign of God. These are the forces on full display as Jesus is murdered on the cross;  these are the same forces that are shamed and disarmed as Jesus rises victorious from the grave. While they are utterly defeated, these same forces are the ones that steal, kill, and destroy our world today.

As we proclaim God’s reign of hope and justice in our world, we must recognize the difference between the suffering we are, on the one hand, bound to experience as we confront the powers and principalities that inhabit and empower evil, sinful structures and, on the other hand, the suffering meted out on the billions of poor, marginalized, and oppressed people by those same evil structures. In fact, all creation suffers and groans under sinful, evil structures inspired by the powers and principalities. The suffering we experience as we work for the salvation of others, as we follow the way of Christ as a community in a hostile world, is the only kind of suffering given by God; it is the only kind of suffering that can be called redemptive. I think we need to be careful, to seek discernment of the Spirit, so that we do not confuse this kind of suffering for the sake of others with the suffering caused by sinful structures or natural disasters or tragic accidents.

What we must remember is that God is always present and bringing comfort in all our suffering because God loves us with an eternal, unending love. God even suffers with us. However, God’s comfort in our suffering does not mean that God condones it or that God has caused it. When Job said, “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him,” God was not happy. Why? Because Job got it wrong. God didn’t slay Job – the enemy did (Job 1:11-12). Here’s what God says back to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!… Would you [Job] discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:2, 8). Job thought he was being pious but he had wrongfully accused God of being the source of the evil and suffering he experienced. By accepting this suffering as if it was ordained by God, he had called God’s justice into question.

Before we glorify in your sufferings, or tell someone to praise God for the suffering “God is putting them through,” let’s be very sure that we’re not accusing God of injustice. Instead of accepting this suffering, God may be calling us to oppose it, to cry out for God’s justice and mercy. Maybe the praise God is calling us to is the praise of lament: “lamentation is not the opposite of praise but a form of praise in which God is rightfully held accountable to God’s promises: to comfort the widow, heal the afflicted… lament is expressed not as an accusation but as… a call back to fidelity to the terms of the original covenant, and includes an appropriate expectation or longing, not a demand, the very possibility of which was created when love and covenant were first enacted” (Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us, 341, 342). We lament because God loves us with an everlasting, covenant-keeping love. When we suffer – whether it comes from God or not – God does not require us to simply accept the suffering and act as though it were good a priori, as though God were “slaying us” so that we would “know God”; I think God calls us to lament.
 
UPDATE: In light of this post, see my thoughts concerning Vincent Donovan’s quote on the Christian Solution to evil.

Donovan on the Christian Solution to Evil

There will always be a cross somewhere in the midst of the Christian solution to evil, a cross of the pain involved in not returning blow for blow; a cross of the natural, human bitterness felt in the experiencing of hatred and returning love in its place, or receiving evil and doing good; a cross reflected  in the near impossibility of counting oneself blessed in the midst of persecution, or of hungering and thirsting for justice, or in being merciful and peace makers in a world which understands neither. Between us and fulfillment, between us and everlasting justice, between us and the salvation of this suffering world, there will always stand the paradox of the cross, a cross not for others, but for us. “The Jews are looking for miracles and the pagans for wisdom. And here we are preaching a crucified Christ, to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the pagans madness” (1 Cor. 1:22-23)

Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai

I usually don’t comment when I post “great quotes” but I can’t post this quote without a brief aside. I’ll get straight to the point: Donovan’s quote struck me deeply because I live a life that places crosses on others. I agree with Donovan’s quote to the extent that I, and all people, are bearing their crosses for the sake of God’s reign. However, we have to remember that Jesus laid down his life on his own accord (John 10:18). No one took his life from him. The cross “in the midst of the Christian solution to evil” is sometimes the cross we have placed on others; a cross that is taking the life of another. As with most everything, context is key. What is the source of the cross? Was it chosen or was it forced?

The Vision of Oscar Romero: What Romero Says to CCDA and My Vision for Ministry [Part 6]

My vision for ministry has slowly come into focus over the past six or seven years. However, I hold the few pieces of vision I have been able to see very loosely because I want to remain open to God’s call and further clarification. My vision, as I currently see it, is to lead a Christian community development ministry in a rural town somewhere in the southeastern U.S. The notion of Christian community development was developed by John Perkins and focuses on meeting the felt needs of an underdeveloped community through a ministry of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution.[1] The vision of Oscar Romero coincides well with my vision of Christian community development, but it also challenges this vision in important ways.

Romero’s vision challenges me to ground myself within an established church tradition that provides a structure of support, authority, and teaching. As was seen throughout his ministry and his pastoral letters, Romero was a man of the church – the Roman Catholic Church. His vision cannot be separated from the Catholic Church’s vision set forth by the Second Vatican Council and the Medellin Conference. While he did face criticism and disunity within the church hierarchy, these struggles did not keep him from living out his vision. The idea of submitting to a church tradition creates tension with my congregation-based, Southern Baptist heritage. While I was involved with a United Methodist Church for a few years during college and came to admire the teachings of John Wesley, I was troubled by the UMC hierarchical system. However, in my study of Romero’s life, I have seen how even the most corrupt and resistant hierarchy can be a source of mutual support and encouragement. The key for Romero was in refusing to sacrifice his commitment to the Salvadoran people, especially the poorest among them, in order to protect or appease the hierarchy. Romero’s vision calls me to root myself deeply in a faith tradition that inspires me and complements my vision.

Romero’s vision also deeply challenges my view on suffering. Romero’s context for ministry was full of suffering – murders, kidnappings, and extreme poverty. As a leader of the Easter church, Romero was called to proclaim the hope of resurrection precisely in the most crucified places; he fully expected to suffer in the process. However, he did not simply take on the suffering of others as if the suffering itself was the goal. The suffering Romero expected would come in the form of persecution. Entering into crucified places and exposing the structures of sin would inevitably create a backlash from those who profit from these structures. This distinction between suffering experienced under the oppression of structural sin and the suffering of persecution which comes when those structures are confronted is extremely important, especially when considering how suffering can be said to be “redemptive.” As archbishop, Romero consistently denounced the sins of the Salvadoran government and military which caused extreme suffering. He saw no redemption in the murders, kidnapping, and oppression his people experienced under these structural sins. However, his ministry does reveal how the suffering caused by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ can be redemptive. Suffering, in this case, may be redemptive but it is not the source or cause of the redemption. The work of redemption is a function of grace, and grace abounds in the very places where suffering due to sin is at its very worst. Suffering can be redemptive only when it opens a person to the redeeming grace of God in the life of a community proclaiming and working towards the hope of full liberation in the reign of God.

Romero never shrank back in the face of suffering. He listened to the people and shared in their sorrow and their grieving. He did not protect himself or attempt to love his people at a distance. Instead, he cherished the solidarity he was able to experience with those under his care. This aspect of Romero’s vision coincides very well with the idea of relocation in the scheme of Christian community development. Perkins describes relocation as “moving into a needy community so that its needs become our own needs.”[2] The goal of relocation is solidarity. As I enter into suffering communities and join in the struggle against the sin at work in those places, I can experience the unity, joy, and hope that come as a result of shared suffering.

Romero called the church to be a sign and instrument of Easter to a specific people at specific time in history. The life of the world and its mass of suffering was not to be overlooked in order to pursue a purely spiritual vocation. Again, this aspect of Romero’s vision coincides well with Perkins’ development model. The ministry of Christian community development begins with the felt needs of a community and partners with the community to meet those needs first. As relationships of trust are established, the deeper, spiritual needs of the community can be addressed.[3] However, Romero’s vision of being the body of Christ in history calls the ministry of Christian community development beyond merely providing solutions to needs – physical or spiritual. Romero’s vision insists on the formation of a faith community centered on the Word of God which operates in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian community development principle of reconciliation, defined as being reconciled to God and others through the love and forgiveness of the gospel across all boundaries,[4] points in this direction but does not go far enough. This reconciliation should not be ad hoc, but should be experienced within a worshiping, practicing faith community.

Romero’s vision of the Easter church calls for the proclamation of a gospel that brings good news for the whole person and the whole society. This gospel proclamation should lead to liberation from oppressive sinful structures and an empowerment for living in a restored, new creation life. Christian community development’s notion of redistribution provides the practical content of the liberating gospel proclamation Romero demands. Perkins describes redistribution as “[sharing] with those in need… a sharing of our skills, technology, and educational resources in a way that empowers people to break out of the cycle of poverty.”[5] While faithfully engaged in this work of redistribution, Romero would remind any Christian community development that the mission of the church is first towards God, and, because God has come to save us, the church should go out and boldly proclaim and embody this message of salvation.

As I conclude, it is vital to remember that Oscar Romero never saw his vision completed. However, this was not a problem for Romero because he knew his vision was God’s vision. God would complete the work; he only needed to be obedient to God. In recent times, a prayer has come to be associated with Oscar Romero, even though it has been shown that he did not author it.[6] In any case, it beautifully captures the humble trust in God’s greater work that Romero lived so faithfully. This prayer provides an appropriate conclusion to a paper on Romero’s vision:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.[7]


[1] John M. Perkins, Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 30-37.

[2] Perkins, 36.

[3] Perkins, 34.

[4] Perkins, 37.

[5] Perkins, 37.

[6] Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 154.

[7] Wright, 153-154.

My Credo

[At the beginning of last semester, I had to write a personal Credo for my systematics class. The Credo expressed my belief in the Trinity, creation, humanity, the Bible, sin, and grace. Last week, I began the spring semester, which means another systematics class and another Credo. This one expresses my belief in Jesus Christ, salvation, the church, the Holy Spirit, and the “end.” These Credos are like snapshots; they express my faith “right now” (or a few months ago) in 400-600 words. I would probably change some of the things I said in my first Credo after taking my first systematics course and I’ll probably want to change some things in the Credo I wrote for this semester, but that’s the whole point. What would you say in your Credo?]

I believe that God exists as a single, completely unified Trinitarian plurality – Parent, Child, and Spirit. In this Trinity, God is revealed as a community of mutually indwelling persons engaged in an eternal, ongoing act of self-giving love. This God is active, creative, holy, good, just, and full of steadfast love. I believe that God is always on the move with a purpose: the Parent sends the Child to redeem the world; the Child and Parent send the Spirit to empower the Church, which is sent into the world to enter and receive God’s Kingdom.

I believe that God created all that is seen and known along with all that is unseen and unknown. This act of creation was an outpouring of God’s infinite, creative love. It is a good gift in which God is pleased. While it is separate from God, Creation serves as a reflection of its communal Creator as it reveals complex, interdependent relational webs amongst its creatures and their environments which are characterized by trust, care, and nurture.

I believe that human beings are God’s creative masterpieces. They are creatures, but they are set apart from the rest of Creation because they – male and female – are made in God’s own image. God takes delight in these image-bearers and calls them very good. I believe that human beings are created for perfect communion with God, others, and all of Creation. This communion reveals the goodness of God which evokes continual praise and adoration from all God’s creatures.

I believe that sin is any attempt to live life on human terms in opposition to God. Human beings are always prone to sin. This tendency infects every human individual and every human system. Sin causes brokenness and suffering as it corrupts the goodness of all Creation by leading it towards death.

I believe that Scripture is composed of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments found in the Bible. It is inspired by God, but this inspiration does not disrespect the humanity of its authors. It is the authoritative narrative to which every follower of God must be committed. Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it reveals and points to the Word of God.

I believe that grace is God’s unmerited favor secured for all Creation by the perfect life, sacrificial death, and miraculous, embodied resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is the Child of God. In Jesus Christ, grace is freely available for all who would receive it. For those who would receive it, it is the present-day power of new creation life that overcomes sin and death. While remaining free, it commands complete surrender and obedience to the work of God.

I believe that Jesus Christ is God: the absolutely unique Trinitarian person who exists as God in eternal, mutual relations with God the Parent and God the Spirit. I believe that Jesus Christ was born into this world as a Jewish baby in a small, Palestinian village during the time of the ancient Roman Empire. Existing simultaneously as both truly God and truly human, Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah of Israel who accomplished God’s work of salvation for all creation.

I believe that salvation is participation in the life of the Triune God for all eternity. This life is the experience of shalom: the peace, justice, reconciliation, healing, forgiveness of sin, and restoration for all creation revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. This reality of salvation can begin in the present by all who would receive the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ whose sacrificial death and victorious resurrection has defeated death and inaugurated a new reign of life.

I believe that the church is the body of Christ in history. The church is a community of all those who have made Jesus Christ their way to truth and life. The church is a public, social, communal embodiment of salvation; an imperfect demonstration of the way of life which only makes sense in light of Jesus’ resurrection. The church is a pilgrim people: citizens of this world who strive to love the world as God has loved it, but whose ultimate citizenship lies in the new creation world which is coming to life even now.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is God: the absolutely unique Trinitarian person who exists as God in eternal, mutual relations with God the Parent and God the Child. The Spirit is the power of God at work in the world bringing about the new creation. The Spirit indwells the church to be a people of shalom. The Spirit gives gifts to empower and build up the church. The Spirit is comforter, guide, and advocate for those who seek the salvation of God.

I believe that the future belongs to God. The sin and suffering of the world will be eternally damned and God’s reign will be experienced for all time by all people, places, and things in a new creation which perfectly reflects the glorious life of love witnessed in its Triune Creator. I live with hope because God is on the way.

Tangled Visions of Wheat and Weeds: Matthew 13:24-32

rootsMatthew 13:24-32 :: “He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

Here’s a question I know we’ve all heard dozens of times before: what is your vision for ministry? It comes with the territory of being in seminary. It’s a daunting, yet very important question. Will you serve an inner-city church? A small town ministry in Alabama? A remote village in Asia? A seminary? An advocacy group? Will you preach, or teach, or develop outreach ministries, or practice development, or shape national policy? What kind of mark do you plan to leave on the world? We’re leaders and leaders have visions.

In this parable, we find a man with a vision – a vision of wheat. The parable is simple enough. A man owns a field and he decides to plant it with wheat. He goes out, by himself, and sows “good seed”, not the everyday stuff a poor tenant farmer could buy, but the good stuff. Unfortunately, this man has enemies; one of them sneaks up to the field at night and sows weeds just after the owner has planted his good seed. For a while, the weeds grow next to the wheat undetected; it was difficult to distinguish between the weeds and the wheat during the early growing stages. They couldn’t stay hidden forever though. When the workers notice them, they run off to the owner and say, “What happened? I thought you bought the good stuff? Your wheat field is covered in weeds!” The owner knew he planted good seeds. He also knew that these were no ordinary weeds; these were poisonous weeds which were actually illegal to plant under Roman law. This was an attack!

Immediately, the workers want to take action and save the wheat: “So we should probably go get rid of these weeds right away, don’t you think!? These are dangerous. They’ll ruin your harvest.” The owner surprises them, “No. You’d better not do that. You can’t see it but these weeds are now connected to the wheat. Their roots are all tangled together. You can’t pull up one without pulling up the other. We must let the weeds grow together with the wheat.” But the owner doesn’t lose hope. When the time for harvest comes, the weeds will be easy to recognize so they can be gathered first and discarded. Even when the field is covered in weeds, the owner never loses his vision of wheat.

Later on in this chapter, Matthew records Jesus’ own explanation of this parable, but I’d like to offer a different perspective. Let’s imagine ourselves as the landowner. The “good seeds” we plant are our very lives, our work, our service of love to God and others as ministry leaders.  For us, the “vision of wheat” is our vision of the fruit we hope to see from our lives, the mark we hope to leave, the transformation we long to see.

So, we have these visions of ministry full of pure, rolling fields of wheat glistening in the sun, right? We plant ourselves in love for God and neighbor, and one day we look up to see those “amber waves of grain” ripe for God’s harvest… If only it worked like that… Unfortunately, as leaders who follow a murdered, crucified Lord, we too have enemies and we need to be ready for the weeds… lots of weeds.

Yes, we’re good leaders. We do our best to be faithful, to love well, to plant the “good seeds.” But one day we’ll look out over our “field of ministry” and the sight may terrify us: poisonous weeds threatening our fragile wheat – conflicted communities, fractured families, disappointed disciples, flaky friends, corrupt colleagues, struggling sinners, hurt, pain, suffering, opposition, and yes, even personal attacks. Weeds. What will we do? It’ll seem like we’re failing, but it won’t even be our fault! But then our “workers” will come knocking, wanting answers: “I thought you were committed. I thought you would do better. What happened pastor? Is this your vision? Why so many weeds? Where’s the wheat?”

At these moments, we’ll face a true test of our discernment. Will we respond in fear and anxiety, running run through our fields yanking up weeds and destroying our visions in the process? Or will we have the humility to confess that the weeds we seeing growing in the lives of others are actually the same weeds growing in our hearts as well? If we choose this humility, we realize that our visions for ministry have been and continue to be indelibly shaped by the sin and suffering we experience deep in our own lives and in the lives of others. Our vision for ministry, blurry as it may be, must include the weeds; we must flex, adapt, and make room to include the sin and suffering of others because the roots of those weeds are tangled up with roots of our visions. Like the land owner in our parable, our only choice is to let the wheat and weeds grow together. The harvest belongs to God; we will have to live with these weeds and take our stand on the faithfulness of the One who has called us and who promises to bring our “good work” to completion at the final harvest.

Reflecting on Structural Sin and Suffering

Growing up as a member of a Southern Baptist church in rural Alabama, I heard all about sin: smoking, drinking, partying, and the like. In my embedded theology, sin was an individual’s decision to disobey God’s commands and suffering was the intended consequences of these sinful actions. I began to question these ideas about sin and suffering as I visited places like Honduras where suffering was widespread but no one individual could be blamed. I realized that individual sinful actions were similar to the tip of an iceberg; a much greater evil was concealed in darkness below the water’s surface. This greater evil is known as structural sin.

The individualized focus of my embedded theology of sin is woefully incomplete. Since, as Clark Williamson notes, human beings are created as persons defined by relations to each other, God, and creation,[1] sin and suffering are always both personal and social. Alienation – “the refusal… to acknowledge the Creator and to love the neighbor” – is revealed as sin’s essential quality when human beings are properly situated within God’s communal vision for creation.[2] As Serene Jones has argued, this alienating sin is not merely individual acts but a comprehensive state of being that orients the life of all people and societies in opposition to “God’s will for our flourishing.”[3] Enveloped in this sinful reality, we grossly distort every dimension of our created nature and form “interlocking structures of various forms of oppression”[4] that transform our good diversity into evil division. All created things involved in these sinful structures suffer from the loss of God’s abundant life offered to all creation.

In order to understand and faithfully respond to the suffering caused by the evils of structural sins, I must examine this suffering as it occurs in specific historical contexts among specific individuals and groups.[5] I have witnessed this suffering most distinctly in the life of my friend Bob.[6] He is a poor, African-American man in his early sixties with mild schizophrenia. He lives in rural Sumter County, Alabama, only a few miles from my hometown. When I met Bob, he was living in a dilapidated mobile home with no electricity or running water. As I came to know him, I discovered an interwoven triad of structural sins – poverty, racism, and the stigma of mental illness – that caused immense suffering in his life. He was trapped in deeply rooted poverty: 2010 US census data reported a startling 35% poverty rate in Sumter County.[7] His humanity was degraded by the force of what Delores Williams calls “white racial narcissism.”[8] He was treated as if he were violent, incompetent, or immoral because of his illness.[9] These evil structures alienate Bob from his community, his family, and even from his own talent. He is a creative man who loves to write poems but the multiplicative forces of these structural sins utterly devalue Bob’s creative ability and deny him any opportunity to share his work with others.

This plurality of suffering in our world demands the kind of prophetic response that Walter Brueggemann describes as a criticizing “rejection… of the present order of things” and an energizing “anticipation of the newness that God has promised.”[10] However, the criticizing work of the prophet must begin in silence, as Dorothee Soelle has argued, in order to respect those who have suffered.[11] In this silence, sufferers are given the freedom and space to grieve and bear witness to their pain on their own terms. This grieving functions as potent criticism because it announces that “things are not alright” in the world.[12] According to Abraham Heschel, the prophet takes up this grief and amplifies it in order to express God’s rage on behalf of those suffering in “silent agony.”[13] Through the prophet, God condemns the suffering of the status quo and calls the church to repent from their idolatry and subsequent refusal to live and work towards justice and mercy for the oppressed.[14]

While criticism is the starting place for prophetic ministry, Heschel notes that nearly every prophet “concludes with a message of hope.”[15] Because God is faithfully involved in creation, prophets proclaim that God’s mercy and love will have the final say – not sin and suffering.[16] They sing new, hopeful songs in anticipation of the alternative reality promised by the God who is present in suffering.[17] In these songs, prophets give voice to a new moral imagination that envisions “new ways of living and loving.”[18] As faith in God is renewed, resources for survival and building a new quality of life are revealed in the midst of suffering.[19]

As a person answering God’s call to ministry in the US, my first response to the reality of structural sin is to see clearly my own participation in it. I lived the first 18 years of my life in a small, rural town in Alabama where white racism towards the majority African-American population was an everyday reality. However, I have never considered how this racist “social body” may have influenced my own “assignment of meaning and significance” to racial others.[20] I have failed to see this sin clearly because I have refused to see it in myself.[21] As a result, I have remained “unstirred” and therefore unable to raise a prophetic voice that criticizes the racist consciousness and imagines alternative, subversive ways of being that dismantle racist structures and embody God’s communal vision.[22]

My complicity in a racist society calls for confession. “In confession,” Bonhoeffer writes, “the breakthrough to community takes place.”[23] Racism, like all sin, has desired to keep me isolated and unable to engage in full fellowship with the African-American community.[24] It has taught me to fear and belittle racial others. Racism has led me to believe that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to Caucasians, are always looking for an excuse to avoid work, and are unable to manage responsibility. This socially-mediated pedagogy of racism has led me into the sin of homogeneity that seeks uniformity over unity-in-diversity and the sin of apathy that blinds me to the suffering of my African-American brothers and sisters. As a result of participating in a racist society, I confess that I am a racist.

The church’s response to God’s vision for justice in the world should also begin with a confession of complicity. Unfortunately, this response is problematic for many Christians in the US because they have reduced the social sin of racism to overtly racist individual actions. As a result, many claim no responsibility for “causing” racism and therefore see no need for confession. These people deny their participation in what Dr. King called the “inescapable network of mutuality.”[25] However, once racism is understood as a social sin, Christians of all colors move beyond blame and create safe spaces for confessing their complicity in racist structures. This communal confession can empower prophetic ministry in the church that overthrows sinful structures and embodies God’s vision of justice in creation.


[1] Clark Williamson, “What’s Wrong with Us?: Human Nature and Sin” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 165.

[2] Ibid., 166.

[3] Serene Jones, “What’s Wrong with Us?: Human Nature and Sin” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 149.

[4] Eleazar S. Fernandez, Reimagining the Human: Theological Anthropology in Response to Systemic Evil (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2003), 35.

[5] Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1986), 51.

[6] I have used a fake name to protect the identity of my friend.

[7] “Sumter County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau,” http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/01/01119.html, (accessed November 9, 2012).

[8] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 88.

[9] Corrigan, Patrick W., Amy C. Watson, and Victor Ottati,”From whence comes mental illness stigma?,” International Journal Of Social Psychiatry 49, no. 2 (June 2003): 142.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 3.

[11] Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 69.

[12] Brueggemann, 11.

[13] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 5-6.

[14] Kyle D. Fedler, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 119.

[15] Heschel, 14.

[16] Felder, 136.

[17] Brueggemann, 68.

[18] Felder, 137.

[19] Williams, 203.

[20] Mary Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: body, race, being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 8.

[21] Williamson, 161.

[22] Heschel, 31.

[23] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper Collins, 1954), 112.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Martin Luther King, Jr., Trumpet of Consciousness (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 68.